The Beauty That Beckons Us

An Introduction to the Theology of Fr. John Navone, S.J. (Part 2)

The Last Supper, by James Tissot (1836-1902).

(As HPR’s way of honoring the lifelong work of our brother Jesuit, Fr. John Navone, S.J., we are running an essay in two parts by Gonzaga University’s Dr. Cunningham. See the previous issue for Part One.)

Part Two

John Navone’s articulations of Christian conversion seemed to reach full maturity after the theology of story was fully in place. Conversion not only answers the question “what is any story in the divine context ultimately about?” but also provides an interface between Christ’s story and our own individual narratives. Conversion is the means by which we conform our stories to the sacramental narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

As is the case with Martini’s four-fold Gospel hypothesis—which serves as a creative foundation for Fr. Navone’s edifices on Christian anthropology, the question-raising God, and narrative theology—Navone’s works on conversion reveal the influences of another great Jesuit theologian, Fr. Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan characterizes religious conversion as the transformation of the human subject—the integrating center of cognitive and affective (essentially, thinking and feeling) consciousness—and is brought about by the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In explaining this transformation, Navone points to Lonergan’s distinction between “faith” and “beliefs” in the subjective domain. Faith is the infrastructure of religious conversion; the pre-conceptual response to the indwelling Word, and subsequent inner knowledge of God that comes from the evidence of his in-pouring love. Beliefs, on the other hand, are super-structural, and grow as the result of encounters with external religious forms, such as creeds, liturgies, and doctrines. Christian conversion is “a lifelong process of self-transcending love: the only way for the achievement of authentic human development and integration for all human persons.”

From Navone’s point of view, conversion always involves tension on many interoperating levels. The first layer of tension, of course, is the interior, intrapersonal push-and-pull that results from our attempt to respond to God’s original question—“Where are you?” When we acknowledge honestly that we are probably not where God wants us to be, we commence our journey; we begin the writing of our story, and seek out the communion for which we were created. As a result of our response to God’s call, we encounter subsequent tensions in every context of our lives, and each of these tensions requires a dying to our old selves. Invoking St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians, Navone observes that conversion is a turning away from idols to God: “It demands a withdrawal from the world as the ultimate base of our security and hope.”

The conversion process is lived as a pilgrimage of faith to the “mountain of God,” where we encounter the Lord in the communion of true friendship. In this approach to conversion, which Fr. Navone taught to his classes for years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, the journey to God may be mapped out as a fivefold progress of Old Testament promises, answered by their fulfillment in Christ. The pilgrimage begins with: (1) the theophany of God’s revelation, followed by (2) the call of God, the lovely lure of the mysterium fascinans. Attracted by the mystery of God’s call, we then (3) set out in pursuit of the beauty that we know must be the source of this fascination by ascending the mountain of God, and then (4) we take our place (5) at the banquet he has prepared for us. Corresponding with these promises, all of which occur repeatedly in the prophetic literature of Scripture, are the fulfillments of the new covenant in Christ. The “Christophany” at the crucifixion, Navone asserts, emblematizes the confession of faith that (1) sets the Christian pilgrimage in motion. Jesus Christ, the savior, friend, and shepherd of mankind, becomes (2) the very icon of the mysterium fascinans. Christ’s own response to the call of his Father, culminating in the Way of the Cross, shows us (3) the self-giving love that constitutes the ultimate pursuit of beauty. In the glory of resurrection, Christ becomes the eternal summit of God’s mountain (4), and prepares (5) the eschatological banquet of communion and beatitude that has been the core aspiration of all Creation.

We can see then, that there is much at stake in the conversion process of any individual, for the fullness of salvation depends upon the faithful performance of the holy pilgrimage undertaken by each person in Christ. The four-part process of metanoia (conversion), kenosis (self-giving), diakonia (service), and koinonia (communion), all modeled in the sacramental narrative of Christ, become the modes of transformation that mark our own conversions.

If we prevail in our quest, and embrace the apparent worldly failure of the cross, we will, not only “overcome the self-idolatrous tendencies that preclude our wholeheartedly welcoming and living according to the grace and call of God,” but also participate in the salvation of the world as well.

The Triumph of Failure
Shortly after his election in the spring of 2013, Pope Francis became the subject of an article by Armando Torno printed in the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Serra. Torno’s article reported that Pope Francis had long considered the work of John Navone to be central to his own spiritual formation. Specifically, the Pope noted Navone’s theology of failure, which was first articulated in the 1970s, and has apparently served as something of a philosophical beacon for the Pope Francis throughout the last several decades. This placed Navone in the good company of St. Teresa of Avila as one of Francis’ major spiritual influences. The Pope’s approbation of Navone’s philosophy was echoed by Matteo Matzuzzi, whose piece, that same week, in the Italian newspaper, Il Foglio, affirmed that the Pope “adores the theology of failure of the Jesuit John Navone.”

Francis’ admiration for the theology of failure stems in great part from its emphasis upon the virtue of patience. As Pope Francis explained in 2013 to journalists, Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti:

Patience is a theme that I have pondered for years after my having read the book of John Navone, an Italian-American author, with the striking title, The Theology of Failure, in which he explains how Jesus lived patiently. Patience is forged in the experience of limits. There are times when our lives do not call so much for our doing as for enduring, for bearing up with our own limitations and those of others. Patience accepts the fact that it takes time to develop and mature. Living with patience allows for time to integrate and shape our lives.

The notion of failure became a centerpiece of Navone’s theology in 1974, with the publication of The Theology of Failure (later expanded and republished as Triumph Through Failure: A Theology of the Cross in 1984), and a supplemental article, “The Theology of Failure,” here in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. In some ways, Navone’s work on failure is something of an outlier to his core writings in Christian anthropology, but it represents a necessary complement to his work on story, the quest/question, and conversion. Without the primordial “fail” of original sin, there is no requirement for Christ’s redemptive act and, notwithstanding, the bliss of the eschatological communion at “story’s end”—the plot of Christ’s narrative being undeniably a trajectory of failure according to any worldly expectation. As Navone makes clear, the central and fundamental paradox of Christ’s crucifixion, which marks his failure to establish the earthly messianic kingdom expected by many of his followers, is the first and fundamental tension in the dynamic of the question. In this sense, failure—characterized as the inability of the material world to provide ultimate satisfaction—is the origin and end of the entire Christian conversion process. It is failure—in the form of the gnawing gap between reality and expectation in our yearning for God—that sets us upon our quest for holiness and wholeness.

The catalog of failing moments in the story of Christ—to say nothing of the story of the Church in the modern world—would be the source of near comic despair if it were not for the certainty of its outcome of Christ’s resurrection, and our redemption. Yet, any sober look at human life in its various contexts reveals failure at every stratum, proving, we might say, that a Christian anthropology is ultimately a spiritual response to pervasive earthly failure.

Navone introduces the unholy trinity of death, Satan, and sin as the “three faces of failure” in the Old Testament context. The three faces are indeed a unity of their own, as Satan is always depicted as the author of sin, with death as the inevitable fruits of sin. The temptation of Christ in the New Testament marks the occasion of the first systematic confrontation with, and repudiation of, the sin that doomed humanity since the Fall. In this story, Jesus, exhausted and emaciated from a long desert fast, stares evil down, and boldly extricates himself, and a fallen creation, by rejecting each of Satan’s false promises in turn.

To the promise of satisfaction through materialism—the temptation to turn stones into bread—Christ responds by saying that man does not live by bread alone, but by the utterances of God, and “thought, love, and freedom” that the  Logos creates. Here, Navone makes the provocative, but undeniably correct judgment that Christ’s rejection of Satan is also a rejection of the “social gospel” of false peace, and false justice, acquired through material technologies, consumption, and the power-operations of the modern state. To the second false promise—the temptation to acquire the “sensational” power to perform miracles—Christ responds by saying that God will not be put to the test by demands for supernatural marvels. To the third false promise—the temptation to worldly domination and adulation—Christ responds by saying that the Lord alone is worthy of power, domination, and worship. This cosmic, fate-determining dialogue between Christ and Satan—a dialogue that Navone calls a “dialectic of failure”—demonstrates the awesome and counterintuitive nature of Christ’s mission on earth, which is quite simply to fail according to the standards of earthly power and, in so doing, reveal earthly power’s inadequacy. The sobering dimension of this encounter, and Christ’s refusal to accept the success offered by Satan, is the necessary realization that because Christ refused them, the standards of this world are categorically false, corrupted, and tainted. To accept Christ, then, is to comply with his refusal of the world, and to accept his choice to fail in its eyes.

On the historical, interpersonal level, Christ’s failures make even the miraculous successes in his ministry seem almost inconsequential. Yes, he did perform wonders, but they hardly garnered for him the permanent loyalty of the crowd. The changing of water into wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, exorcising demons—even raising the dead to life—look more or less paltry when we consider that the performer of these prodigies was, in the end, betrayed by a close disciple, denied by his hand-picked successor, and set up for state execution by the religious community he intended to save (and Navone reminds us here that, according to the standard of “mass approval,” even the criminal, Barabbas, was a greater success). Jesus’ failure to convert Israel, or even save his own life is, paradoxically, the primary datum of our salvation. Jesus’ failures, Navone asserts, are “the way par excellence through which God revealed himself in Christ, and accomplished the salvation of mankind.”

What shall we say, then, of the Church that managed to survive, flourish and, essentially, redefine the concept of western civilization?  Navone urges us to look closely at the historical process, and ask whether times of great cultural triumph are not, in fact, the times in which the message of the Gospel is the most diluted. The meaning of history, Navone argues, can be found more readily in the apocalyptic end of its process, than in any contrived narrative of triumph. “Christians risk infidelity to the spirit of their faith if they attempt to see … in the history of power and success, the manifestation of divine preference or approbation.” Accordingly, neither the bold historical march of material progress in the West, nor its provisional culmination in the contemporary world, should be taken as evidence of any Christian triumph—particularly when it becomes clear to the most cursory observation that our progressive history, and present-day society, are largely devoid of any real Christian spiritual value. The success of western civilization, in many ways, looks more like the fruits of a society that capitulated to the temptations against which Christ actually prevailed. The forward momentum of the material historical process—up to the day of its fulfillment in the Eschaton—is necessarily a story of the repetition of demonic temptations and recapitulations of the Fall.

Ultimately, Navone insists on the importance of memory in transcending failure. Remembering (which is quite distinct from the kind of projection of present values into past contexts favored by modern historical writing) gives us a way to recapture the moments of Christ’s true spiritual triumphs: from the rejection of Satan’s promises in the desert, to the institution of the memorial sacrifice of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. “We are,” Navone says, “what we will to remember,” and our narratives, liturgies, and rites are the means by which our memories are preserved and propagated. The real presence of Christ in the Mass is our reminder of his eternal presence in the world, and this is why the institution of the Eucharist included the command: “Do this in memory of me.”

The meaning of the world is not the material success of modern civilization, nor of the long continuum of empires—pre-modern and modern—whose success has been defined by conquest, control, and the amassing of material wealth. The meaning of the world is, rather, the eschatological fulfillment of the world-historical process, when perfect communion in the millennial Kingdom will fully reveal the love of God, and the purpose of our creation. The “triumph” of failure, Navone assures us, is the overturning of false success in the establishment of the Father’s kingdom.

The kingdom of God is the place where the will of God will be perfectly done. … No purely human plan for the reconstruction of the world will pave the way to the millennium. The only valid reconstruction will be primarily a spiritual one embodying the will of God for our world. (Triumph through Failure, p. 122)

In considering its own historical context, Navone’s theology of failure seems to run counter to the general optimism of the era in which it was born. It goes without saying that the naïvely forward-looking modern consciousness of the late 19th century had taken some serious hits as a result of the horrors of the 20th century. Those of us who lived amidst the fears engendered by the geopolitics of the Cold War knew that the historical optimism of Enlightenment civilization was a heavily conditioned thing. Yet, even in the 1970s, a general belief in the success of material progress still informed the collective imaginaries of the powers of the age. Whether one lived in a Soviet Communist or democratic capitalist context, one could still believe in the eventual success of one’s preferred materialism. Faith in material progress—if tainted by the realities of inflation, social inequality, ecological deterioration, public debt, and the threat of nuclear holocaust—was still alive and well, and there were no serious religious challenges to its dominance. The resurgence of Islamic jihadism had yet to appear, and the consciousness of the Catholic Church was experiencing a massive overhaul due to its rapprochement with modernity in the Second Vatican Council. Given the hegemony of modernization in the 1970s, it seems that Fr. Navone was ahead of his time by articulating something so counterintuitive as a “theology of failure.” Today, few could argue against the obvious facts that modern civilization has entered a state of serious crisis, and that we need some form of consciousness, both more meaningful and more comprehensive, than our reflexive infatuation with progress-for-progress’ sake. We ran out of real money tens of trillions of dollars ago. The sovereignty of the nation state has yielded to the apparently better organized power of corporate racketeering and global terrorism. There are almost no more constraints on public decency, and individual morality, from which we can still “emancipate” ourselves. And, the most widely consumed fruits of culture seem to be produced by professional athletes, and amateur entertainers on reality television shows.

When we look at present-day realities from the standpoint of the theology of failure, we can see that the eventual and inevitable failure of modern civilization has been long underway. Fr. Navone’s theology of failure—conceived during a time of moderated modern optimism—speaks to our increasingly postmodern age with particular force, reminding us that the failure of materialism is quite naturally presupposed in the triumph of the Cross.

Beauty and Happiness
With the publication of his books—Toward a Theology of Beauty in 1996, and Enjoying God’s Beauty in 1999—Fr. John Navone’s spirituality took a decided, and more or less permanent, turn toward the spirituality of aesthetics. It is not quite the case to say that beauty became a new concern in Navone’s theology; it would be more accurate to say that the theology of beauty, which had always informed every aspect of his thinking, came into a more vivid relief against the underlying social elements of his earlier articulations.

Navone’s turn toward the beautiful appeared at an interesting time in American culture, as it was in the mid-1990s that “the image” itself came into new prominence with the advent of the internet age. For a humanity already inundated with externally constructed images in the form of mass advertising, television, and cinema, the ubiquity of images on our computers, phones, and tablets has forced us into a status of passive enslavement to pre-made pictures. Two decades of immersion in this sea of imagery has left us all but unable to create images of our own. Now, the uncompromising ideologies, and relentlessly strategic sales campaigns that give meaning to these images, have similarly left us incapable of interpreting the “data stream” of endless video in any manner, except for those pre-coded by the image-programmers themselves. These new technologies, and the dehumanized assumptions behind their profusion, have demanded a new way of framing the human relationship to the image—in other words, a new way of defining beauty.

Catholic scholars, such as Gregory Wolfe, author of Beauty Will Save the World, are keenly aware of the need for Christians to recapture the spaces of aesthetic production, and to transcend, if possible, debilitating political and social polarization of modern life through a renewed appreciation (and, indeed, re-appropriation) of humanity’s shared need for beauty. Wolfe is correct in concluding that the Christian must become engaged with the aesthetic sphere, and must produce value within it.

I believe Navone’s theology of beauty strikes at a deeper level than the artistic activism of Wolfe, inasmuch as it characterizes beauty, not merely as a mode of aesthetic production, and cultural expression, produced by humans in the human sphere, but as a divine mode of being shared by God through grace with humanity. Beauty, while a property of the divine, is, nevertheless, a means by which human beings can enter communion with God along a path of divine involution, rather than merely mimic the creator-God through the construction of artifacts. Beauty, as a mode of being, is thus a means by which we can know and experience God.

The basic datum of  Navone’s theology of beauty is very simply the existence of God as the ultimate context of creation. “The Creator, Happiness itself,” Navone posits, “knows truth and loves goodness and delights in beauty; consequently, whatever proceeds from the Creator—all creation—is knowable, lovable and enjoyable.”

Because the Creator, Happiness Itself, first knows and loves and delights in the truth and goodness and beauty of creation, whatever proceeds from the Creator, “all creation,” is knowable, lovable and enjoyable. Therefore the Creator can be seen in the truth and goodness and beauty of all things, and people can have communion with the Creator in enjoying the beauty of the true goodness of all things. (God’s Saving Beauty, p. 58)

Moreover, as the created image of God, humanity shares the essential properties of God, and is able to conform to divine beauty through loving obedience to God’s will, an act of human will that draws, not upon our desire to be controlled or subjugated, but rather our own yearning (and God-given capacity) to sub-create. Creativity for Navone, is the “heart of beauty” (v) and its exercise allows us to correct the deformity of our nature brought on through the sin of Adam.

The starting point of the human apprehension of beauty is our contemplation of the beauty of the risen Christ. In a sense, this interchange also involves the call-and-response contained in the dynamic of the question. The question being posed to us is contained in the very act of creation. It is the silent offer of God himself, an offer of participating in full communion with the goodness that God tenders in gazing upon us is a reply of gratitude, and a reflection back to God of our delight in existence, and an affirmation of our goodness in him. We express our gratitude in contemplating the fullness of God’s beauty, and bring our contemplation to perfection in the conversion of our hearts.  Navone sees this exchanged “look of love” as a reproduction of the loving gaze with which God beholds his Son throughout the Gospels, and in the eternal processes of world creation.

Christ, the Son, the perfect image of God, is thus the visible image of divine beauty, and reveals his loveliness in all of his natural and supernatural identities. From the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, to the dying God whose love pours out for the world, and finally to the risen king who reigns over heaven and earth: the images of Christ provide the means by which our own desires for love and goodness can be made spiritually real at every stage of existence, from the mundane to the transcendent.

Navone characterizes “true” beauty as the attractiveness of God, which draws us towards him in the form of an irresistible self-giving love. In contrast with this, we also experience the apparent, but false, good of seductive beauty, the “allure of all that entices us to our ultimate unhappiness and destruction.” The attractiveness of God, then, propels us along a trajectory of conversion whose contours are defined, in great part, by our capacity to take delight in that which is good and true, and to reject that which is evil and false. Only our obedience, expressed as our willed sharing in the look of love with Christ in contemplation, can guarantee our ending in the true happiness of Heaven.

Happiness cannot be dissociated from goodness, beauty, and truth, and like these universals, is also an essential property of God. “If God is Happiness itself,” Navone suggests, then “communion with God is communion with Happiness itself” (ix). Heaven is thus a domain of pure joy and delight, a place whose “central activity” is communion with Beauty itself (18). What is traditionally described as the “Beatific Vision” is an ultimately reciprocal gaze in which we see ourselves as God sees us, in all our divine beauty, having acquired our true faces. The reality of Heaven is the reality of beauty made real in happiness, the concrete experience of God’s own delight.

Hospitality, Communion, and Friendship
In affirmation of the Way to holiness laid out by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises—a path that takes a retreatant from purgation, through illumination, to the final goal of communion with God—John Navone also sees communion as the desired end of our spiritual quest through earthly life. In Navone’s spirituality, “communion” is the form and the pre-figuration of the “eschatological banquet” that God has prepared for his loved ones; a chance to enjoy the hospitality that God offers as both a providing Father, and the bountiful Lord of Creation.  “To be with Jesus Christ and all others in the triune communion,” Navone writes, “is the fullness of life or destiny of every human person.”

Hospitality, the fundamental attitude of Christian friendship, is also the core activity of Christian communion. Our understanding of its expression comes from those moments of divine and human hospitality that take place throughout the Scriptures, moments that foreshadow our heavenly communion with the Lord in eternity. Abraham and Sarah’s unwitting entertainment of Yahweh and his angels, Jesus’ demand of the Samaritan woman for water, and the valorization of the “hospitable just” in Matthew’s depiction of the final judgment, all show us that the City of God is, in Navone’s terms, a “hospitable city.” In all of these biblical episodes, we see clearly the mode which God prefers; the mode by which God himself operates as a generous, inviting friend.

Navone characterizes the world as a “pure gift” from God. As guests of God’s hospitality by simple virtue of our existence, we are called to replicate his generosity as the divine host in all of our encounters. The notion of divine hospitality, properly assumed as a human responsibility—as a correct response to God’s call—will necessarily move our human relationships away from the realm of “tolerance” and “coexistence” to one of “friendship.” Unless we make this move, cheerfully and lovingly doing for the least of our brothers and sisters what we would have done for ourselves, we remain alienated from the friendship of God. Our call to conversion implies a call to that communion and friendship that God lovingly grants to us.

The Last Supper is the supreme icon of God’s hospitality, as it fulfills the promises of the prophets, and shows us a clear vision of how divine condescension brings together the seemingly disparate events of death and celebration. After bowing down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus serves them bread and wine, telling them that in taking, eating, and drinking, they are consuming his very body and blood. Here, we see that accepting Jesus’ hospitality, the disciples are concretely transforming themselves through this Communion with his essence as Christ. They are also participating in the “greatest story ever told,” performing a fractal enactment of Isaiah’s “messianic banquet,” and preparing for the theophany of Jesus’ ascent from the table of hospitality to the hill of crucifixion. Navone’s theology of hospitality evokes in our imaginations a rich, multilayered tableau of natural and supernatural hospitality and friendship, but does so in a manner that forces us to contend with the stark juxtaposition of the uncomfortably, but inevitably linked, themes of friendship and sacrifice.

In the end, sacred hospitality, itself a species of the dynamic of the question, may be the most important response we give to God’s offer of friendship, and quite possibly the most enduring quality of our conversion. It is in giving human hospitality that we find our inherently selfish natures conforming to the generous will of God, and in receiving divine hospitality, that we come to realize the experience of friendship with God, in the enjoyment of the delight of God’s kingdom.

Dr. Eric Cunningham, PhD About Dr. Eric Cunningham, PhD

Eric Cunningham is an associate professor of history at Gonzaga University. A specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history, he received an MA in modern Japanese literature from the University of Oregon in 1999, and a Ph.D. in history from the same institution in 2004. Cunningham's research interests include Japanese intellectual history, Zen Buddhism, Anthroposophy, Catholicism, psychedelia, and postmodernism. He is the author of Hallucinating the End of History: Nishida, Zen, and the Psychedelic Eschaton (Academica Press, 2007), and Zen Past and Present (Association for American Studies, 2011). Cunningham lectures and writes on a wide range of topics, including Japanese history, film, and contemporary Catholic culture.


  1. John Navone, S.J. John Navone, S.J. says:

    In the original Greek of John’s Gospel, ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ are interchangeable: the Good Shepherd is the Beautiful Shepherd whose beauty consists his self-giving love in laying down his life for his sheep. When the Beautiful Shepherd is lifted up on the cross, the beauty of his self-giving love will draw all to himself. This is the Beauty that saves the world.
    Any understanding of salvation apart from the mercy and grace of God is not a Christian understanding. The illusion of human self-sufficiency witnesses our boundless capacity for self deception. The historian Herbert Butterfield held that the endless times that the human race came so close to self-destruction were grounds for his believing in a saving, divine Providence.


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